The Perpetual Interview: Succeeding in Academia

I was not a good student in high school.  In fact, I was the kid whose project–while ambitious–was unfinished in time for the science fair, whose number two pencil was left behind on test day, and whose homework was voted most likely to have been eaten by the dog.  When people say, “he’d have straight “A”s if only he’d apply himself” they are talking about me in grade school and when they say “he does such amazing things when he applies himself, if only he’d apply himself more often” they are talking about me–and people like me–while I was in high school.  When I went back to school after ten plus years in the work world, I was determined to be that student that everyone thought I could be and, in general–with the exception of “Foundations in Literary Interpretation” or CORE–I have succeeded.  I’ve treated every paper as though it were something I’d like to publish and every test like it was an examination in a job interview–but I’ve often been reminded that school is not “the real world.”


Every once and awhile you have one of those conversations that pull back the curtain and reveal a hidden corner of academia.  So much of admissions, funding, housing, and even evaluation is a “black box”–you put something in and–magically–on the other side a response pops out–frequently after far too long spent wondering what could possibly take so long.  The internal machinery of selection committees, the calculations and precedents behind financial aid, and, yes, even the rubrics of your professors are frequently so complex, opaque, and subjective that we use words like “random” and–sometimes–“Machiavellian” to describe them.  However, the other day, while I was discussing a paper with a professor at University of Chicago’s Divinity School, I was unexpectedly ushered behind the veil to gaze upon the holy of holies: how one gets a job, how one gets a Ph.D. candidacy from the ranks of Masters students, and how one gets into Masters–or Ph.D.–program from the ranks of the undergrads.  The answer is far more obvious than you might expect, and I’ll bet you aren’t surprised when I tell you what it is…

It’s strange, but in common conversation and popular imagination, when parents, teacher and administration talk about grade schoolers they’ll frequently say, “Well, that kind of behaviour is normal for children at that age.  Now, if she were a bit older, we’d expect a lot more.”  And when those same children are in high school they’ll say, “Well, now in my day, we’d have behaved better but kids these days have so much expected of them.  Perhaps, we can let them be kids a little while longer–they have the rest of their lives to be bound by strict rules and high expectations.”  And when those same children are college students, those same authority figures will say, “Well, do you remember the stuff we did in college?  Can you blame them for ‘letting their hair down’ and experimenting with all the things we kept them from when they were younger?”  What’s strange about all this talk is that–in rationalizing away any actual hard expectations for kids–they are lead to a point, that point where they enter the job market, where suddenly the “anything goes” of their eighteen to twenty-odd years on the planet suddenly evaporates and they are left unprepared for employment, deadlines, and weeks after week without summer vacation.  I say these lowered–or nonexistent–expectations are part of popular imagination it is not because I don’t believe that some people actually say these things or believe them to be true, but because I don’t think that the world actually works the way these statements would lead you to believe the world works.

So the arcane and mysterious ideology that driving the inner workings of the black box of academia is this: persons worth pursuing are conspicuous.  That professor at the Div school let it slip as casually as any of the other–non-life changing–nuggets of wisdom he gave me that day: there was an MAPH student that became well-known in the philosophy department as a rigorous thinker and an active participant in every class he took.  The professors came to expect great things from him and he always gave them just what they expected, so when he applied to the Ph.D. program his application was one of those selected for an inclusion.  Now in his first year in Chicago’s Ph.D. program, he has already made quite a name for himself and at least the instructor that I told me this story fully expects Chicago to make him a professor of philosophy in Hyde Park in a few years.  When I seems surprised that one so young had so lustrous a career already seeming assured, that Div school prof said “Haven’t you noticed how many young professors there are at U of C, how may who are also alumnists of this college in one way or another.  Haven’t you noticed on the professors bios, how many are picked up straight out of other prestigious school’s Ph.D. programs?”  As it turns out, the professor I who was letting all this slip, was himself, a TA who had become a professor at Chicago.

So the worst kept secret in all of academia is that the people who succeed in the higher stages of academia are those who worked hardest and distinguished themselves in the lowest and earliest stages of educational life.  Those persons who were pursued where those who were conspicuously engaged, contributing, and–ultimately–valuable.  The interview for the job wasn’t after graduation, it was the four or more previous years before graduation.  The application process for the Ph.D. wasn’t the paperwork sent to the committee, it was the hours spent really engaged in class that preceded it.

From this simple claim several entailments can be derived:

1) In academia, the school you attend opens some doors and closes others.  If its more about who knows you than the interview, then where you went to school, with whom you attended, and what circles you moved in decides where you have a chance of succeeding.

2) Academia doesn’t work on the principle of the “American Dream” its under-girded by an “old-boys” network.  Again, it’s not what you know, it’s who knows that you know it.

3) You are always, already in an interview for the next stage of your academic life.  It is possible to be an amazing intellect that floats under the radar, but it is unlikely that you will find success keeping your thoughts to yourself.  Now, the corollary to this is that if you don’t have an amazing intellect you won’t be able to fake it by sitting in the back of the class anymore.

So, black-box opened… just a crack.  Now do something about it!


5 comments on “The Perpetual Interview: Succeeding in Academia

  1. One of your best yet, sir. Both demoralizing and inspiring.

  2. Robert Minto says:

    This is absolutely true in my experience as well. I would add, however, that one should pursue “conspicuousness” only if one is genuinely good at philosophy (which I assume one would think one was, if one was worried about the problem that requires conspicuousness in the first place). I know a few conspicuously bad students, who never miss an opportunity to comment in an off-topic way or to display their ignorance for the congregated experts. Just as Plato says to Meno, “you mean just governance, not all governance,” I would say, “you mean good conspicuousness.”

  3. Mike says:

    I have been reading your blog here and there throughout admissions season. Chicago was the only school I applied to, because it was the only institution I would consider giving up my current profession for. Now I have been admitted to MAPH and have begun the cost/benefit analysis and decision making process. Grad school in the humanities is a huge scam. One can become a professor in many different ways if they are, drumroll please, CREATIVE. Creativity is not only for artists-a brilliant argument is above all a creative and innovative one. A scientific breakthrough comes from a research and from thinkers who are shrewd and creative in their fields. They have great imaginations. One can play the game all she wants, it will never make up for creativity/conspicuousness.

  4. Mike says:

    And also, ‘it’s who knows that you know it’ is a great way of putting what I’ve been feeling for a long time. Having tens if hours of intense discussions with my thesis advisor from Yale put me in a position where a kind and brilliant person was able to vouch for me.

  5. This reminded me of an article I read this morning:

    Especially this quote: “According to one popular conception of science that goes all the way back to Francis Bacon’s invention of it in 1620, scientific endeavor is all about getting answers from nature. That said, given the quality of answers one gets depends conspicuously on the quality of the questions one asks, scientific inquiries lacking in intrepidity, imagination, and insight are likely to yield little more than scientifically validated tedium.”

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